In southern Brazil, a farm owner: "Reagan would never have abandoned Somoza, or allowed this hostage situation to go on so long."

In Buenos Aires, a scientist: "We need a strong figure, a large figure in the United States. Carter is so -- so gray."

In the United States, an Argentine political exile: "Reagan won't come right out and say, 'We won't defend human rights.' But he'll say, 'We defend human rights without sanctions.' And that's what the Argentine military men want."

And in Rio de Janeiro, as the glass-walled cable car climbed slowly above the vast seaside panorama, one passionate and clearly Argentine voice from the back: "There are at least 500,000 people up in that country more qualified than either Carter or Reagan."

The stakes in South America are not nearly as high as they are in the Central American countries to the north. From Venezuela south, no nation is close enough to civil war to raise the possibility that a president Ronald Reagan, for example, might send in troops -- which is what some suggest might happen in Guatemala or El Salvador.

But especially in Argentina, the interest in the presidential race is intense.

On both sides of the spectrum, people here believe that a Reagan presidency would ease off quickly on the human rights-related sanctions that have become the most widely publicized part of President Carter's foreign policy: the arms cutoff to Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, the recent post-coup embargo of all humanitarian aid to Bolivia, the refusal to sell nuclear equipment to Brazil or Argentina, and the repeated Carter administration speeches and reports attacking the use of repression as a political tool. All this would eventually change, say most Argentines consulted, if Reagan won the election.

Reagan's Latin America policy advisers, who have made several visits to Argentina in the last few months, keep stressing two themes in their speeches and interviews. They believe the United States should end what they see as an antagonistic approach to the human rights issues in repressive military regimes -- that in Argentina, for example, American pressure should have been restricted to unpublicized diplomacy, such as personal conversations with President Jorge Rafael Videla.

"How much good did we really do?" asked Roger Fontaine, a chief Reagan adviser on Latin America and Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies member, in a recent interview in Washington. "Did the situation in Argentina change because of pressure, or because the government in Argentina did get a handle on it?"

They also believe the United States should increase pressure against Marxism in Latin America. Aid to Nicaragua should be stopped, said Pedro Sanjuan, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy in Washington.

"In a situation where there is imminent nationalization of everything -- in a situation which is more precarious every day -- what . . . effective good does that foreign assistance do?" Sanjuan asked.

For officials in the southern cone of South America, who are enormously edge about what they perceive as leftist influence anywhere nearby, those philosophies make Reagan highly attractive.

The Carter administration has toned down its criticism of Argentina as the number of kidnapings and disappearances has dropped -- President Carter recently sent what was described in the press as a letter of congratulations to Gen. Roberto Viola, newly chosen as Argentina's next president, and new U.S. Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman's initial comments have been carefully conciliatory, making references to "cooperation" and "better understanding."

Despite all that, Argentine officials bitterly resent what they see as the insult and naivete of Carter's human-rights policy. While there is no official stand on the U.S. presidential race, nor newspaper endorsements, private conversations and the sneering tone of much U.S.-related material in the most progovernment press make it clear that the government is in Reagan's camp and opposition groups, particularly those working in human rights, are in Carter's.

Brazil is keeping its distance in this election. "Just as we don't want Americans interfering in our politics, we won't interfere in theirs," a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Brasilia said recently. A U.S. Embassy officer who meets regularly with Foreign Ministry officials said he could not recall "a single instance" in which his Brazilian counterparts had voice favoritism for Carter or Reagan.

While he is often seen as incompetent, Carter has some support among the Brazilian left. "If a Republican had been elected in 1976, there would not have been the abertura," said Fernando Gasparian, a founder of a Brazilian opposition party, referring to the recent gradual liberalization.

In Brazil, as in much of the rest of the continent, Reagan is viewed as a tough man who would return to the old -- and by now controversial -- role of anticommunist hemispheric leader. The only elected former Brazilian president still living, Janio Quadros, wrote in the Brazilian newspaper OGlobo: "Obviously, Reagan . . . seeks to impress vast segments of the electorate with his propostion to reconstruct the imperial might of the United States, severely shaken today, and to revive the big stick of Theodore Roosevelt."